There aren’t yet talks between Russia and Ukraine, nor even talk about talks, but there is now talk about talk about talks. That’s a necessary development, but also an uncomfortable one, as it forces everyone not only to realise that this is not a bilateral process but a trilateral one, and that many of the slogans and declarations on every side are at best meaningless, at worse problematic.
‘Putin cannot be allowed to win.’ ‘This war must end soon.’ ‘The war ends when Ukraine wins.’ ‘By Ukraine's side for as long as it takes.’ Western policy has increasingly become less of a strategy and more a sequence of catchphrases, and with the battlefield becoming – in Ukrainian commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny’s words – stalemated, and Putin showing no signs of climbing down, there is a growing uncertainty as to where things go from here.
Of course, war is inherently unpredictable, and this one more than most. Nonetheless, the smart analytic money appears to be on it dragging on through 2024 and into 2025. Indeed, Michael Kofman of the Carnegie Endowment has suggested that the best case approach for Kyiv might be to consider 2024 a ‘building year’ in which to lay the foundations for a successful campaign thereafter. With the war having already consumed more than €230bn in direct military and economic aid in its first 18 months, with European leaders such as Italy’s Georgia Meloni already – accidentally – giving the lie to the claim that there is no ‘Ukraine fatigue,’ and with the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency overturning the whole strategic situation, no wonder concern is mounting in Western capitals.
In the longer term, Russia’s ‘military Keynesianism’ is, if not unsustainable, certainly damaging, but for now, it is absorbing an unprecedented defence and security spend of perhaps 10 trillion rubles and still has a little more margin to crank up its military production. Sanctions have not ‘failed’ in absolute terms, as they have imposed costs and constrictions on the war economy, but there is little sense of meaningful new Western options for economic warfare that would not have likely disproportionate effects at home, or in a Global South that is already more willing than expected to listen to Moscow’s side of the argument.
None of this is to say that Ukraine and the West have lost. However, given that there is no appetite in the West either to deepen its commitment to the war by sending troops – as things stand, Ukraine has lost a greater proportion of its population than Russia, even though in absolute terms fewer of its soldiers have died – nor to convert its economy onto a war footing, this does pose difficult political challenges. The moral argument for supporting Ukraine may be unanswerable, but it clearly only goes so far. It can be drowned out by the new crisis of the day – currently, obviously, Gaza – and is also beginning to lose its potency. However much some Western leaders and pundits present it instead as a forward defence, that if Ukraine falls, then a march into Nato territory will follow, this is a pretty hard sell. Not only has Putin showed no desire to take on a military alliance that outgunned Russia when it was at its peak, his military machine will be bruised and battered for years to come, even if after the war is over. Besides, there is little sense that a Russian ‘victory’ in Ukraine would mean control of the country: the best it could possibly hope for is control over Crimea and the now-ruined regions of south-east.
Hence the suggestion that Washington (and, by implication, some other European governments) are beginning to lobby Kyiv behind the scenes to talk to the Russians. I suspect the story has been a little over-spun in that not only is there no sense at present that Zelenskiy could negotiate, never mind would, but likewise despite Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s recent suggestion in Beijing that Moscow is ‘ready for political discussions on a realistic basis,’ the Russians are not ready for concessions. Both sides are, at present, only interested in a conversation insofar it is to receive the capitulation of the other. A senior US official, for example, characterised Zelenskiy’s much-touted Ten-Point Peace Plan as “an invitation to Moscow to surrender unconditionally.”
What there does seem to be, though, is an attempt to prepare the ground for eventual dialogue. As things stand, a majority of Ukrainian still want the war to be prosecuted through to a complete victory, defined as the return of all occupied territories, including Crimea, as well as reparations and justice for the organisers of the aggression. Even so, recent Gallup polling has shown a slow but steady decline in this position, which is now held by 60% of respondents compared with 70% last year. The prospect of some kind of war crimes tribunal in which Putin and his cohorts will be tried for their offences is, frankly, almost inconceivable: this is not a conflict which will end with Ukrainian tanks rolling into Moscow and an absolute surrender, as in 1945. Likewise, there is a strong sense in many Western circles that Crimea may have to be treated as a separate case, perhaps subjected to a genuine, internationally-mediated referendum (including those Ukrainians who fled after 2014, and excluding Russian carpet-baggers who have since arrived) on its future.
As things stand, both Russia and Ukraine have tried to impose faits accompli by constitutionally barring any surrender of territory on Kyiv’s part and by declaring Crimea and four other Ukrainian regions Russian by Moscow (even though they are not all in its control). Something will have to give, and at present the battlefield is not forcing concession either way. Eventually, some kind of deal will have to be struck, because even if Ukraine forces all Russian troops out of its borders, that does not end the war. In part this will likely involve a calibrated lifting of some sanctions to please Moscow, Nato and EU membership to satisfy and secure Kyiv, but likely painful territorial concessions on both sides.
Will the West be willing or able to broker and push any such deal? Will it need to involve third – fourth? – parties better able to twist arms or force one side or the other to accept a painful deal, such as Turkey or China, the UAE or even the Vatican (all of which have offered themselves or otherwise been considered)? Can any deal be made more feasible by expanding its terms, bringing in other contested issues such as strategic arms deals or Arctic assets, such that Russian concessions on Ukraine can be balanced by gains elsewhere? We are only just seeing this kind of serious and creative thinking about the future potential shape of peace talks, let alone the peace itself, emerge from the cloud of cliches, the mire of empty mantras. And that’s a good thing, but it would have been better had it come sooner and not solely as a by-product of fear and failure.